Exclusive: ‘Mischievous’ Kani Kusruti of All We Imagine as Light gets serious and candid after making history at Cannes



Let me start by mentioning a fun fact: when you grow up with activist parents, standing up for causes is in your genes. Malayalam actress Kani Kusruti is no different. Let us start on the journey of her last name. Her mother, who refused to follow patriarchy, added ‘K’ – her maternal initials – to Kani’s name. When Kani turned 15, the school insisted that the initial be expanded. And so, the name became Kusruti, meaning ‘mischievous’ in Malayalam. Her parents were in fact debating to add another name, ‘kundamandi’, meaning troublemaker. “I thought Kusruti was cool, so added that,” says Kani, with a giggle. Her father, an activist, and mom, a medical practitioner, were way ahead of their times. They motivated Kani to indulge in theatre, even though she confessed that in school many girls were opposed to the fact that she would be working with men. “People there (at Cheruvakkal, a small village in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala) are still conservative,” Kani says.

There were always discussions at home, and differences of opinion. That shaped Kani’s views; her parents were like friends who moulded her. Kani’s individualistic thinking and passion for acting started there. “I began with a comedy play; it was engaging, and so I continued,” Kani says. It took her 24 years to get where she is today. She took acting seriously in the past eight years only and has not been

doing plays for the last 10 years. Theatre, which lays a strong foundation for acting, requires far more dedication, and comes with myriad expectations. “The story makes a film a success, along with music, editing, and cinematography. Actors come last. It is total teamwork,” she says.

When Kani hears words like ‘scripting history’, she can only think of Payal Kapadia, the first Indian filmmaker to win such an honour at Cannes. The screening got an eight-minute-long standing ovation for being the first Indian film in over 30 years to be selected in the Main Competition section of the Cannes Film Festival. The film is an Indo-French co-production between Petit Chaos from France and Chalk and Cheese Films from India.

The other co-producers include Arte France Cinéma, Baldr Film, Another Birth, Les Films Fauves and Pulpa Film. “I feel it is a win for all of us – you, me, everyone; it is not mine alone. It is in and out Payal’s vision, and the happiness I’ve got is part of a joint effort,” she adds.

Payal began writing the film eight years ago, and had called Kani for auditions as she had seen some of her short films. She kept her in mind for the role of nurse Anu, and not Nurse Prabha that Kani eventually got to play. “Payal didn’t get the funds and resources to make this film earlier. When she did, I had aged by then and so couldn’t play a 25-year-old,” admits Kani. And she had told Payal that there was “no burden for you to give me the role”. She urged Payal to audition other actors as well.

“I had read the first draft, and of course, the draft changed later; after an audition, the role was confirmed. Auditions reveal my limitations,” she smiles, though Payal believed Kani could play any of the two main roles.

Being raised in a home that fought for causes, it is only natural Kani would support one. She held a clutch that resembled a watermelon slice in support of Palestine, on the red carpet of the Cannes festival. The slice shows red, green, white, and black, which are the colours of the Palestinian flag. “In the world, so much goes on. A genocide is taking place and it is affecting me. I don’t see solidarity in this cause to stop the war — children are dying, and there is structural destruction of communities. Powerful countries must not support this,” she says.

Kani was not alone at the Cannes. Bella Hadid wore a keffiyeh, Cate Blanchett wore something reminiscent of the Palestinian flag, French actress Leila Bekhti wore a watermelon motif brooch, and Italian actress Jasmine Trinca did the same. Australian actor Guy Pearce donned a bracelet with the hues of the Palestinian flag. Moroccan director Asmae El Moudir had the Palestinian flag sewn onto her glove. “Killing anyone is not right. I have also worn badges to show support for protecting French workers, and fighting for their rights,” Kani admits.

Diya John, a friend, designed Kani’s outfits for Cannes. Kani requested she design something that she can wear later too and that nothing goes to waste. “Watermelon had to be there, so we decided on a clutch I can carry anywhere. When we read about history, such cruel incidents pop into our minds. Why not protest when we can put an end to human suffering?” she asks.

Kani is open to different cinema, but admits Hindi is not her strong suit. She would like to work with Dipankar Banerjee, and maybe Sriram Raghavan. “I have no hesitation working in Hindi cinema; as long as it is a character I can pull off, the language doesn’t matter,” Kani says.

What’s new now for Kani is a web series in Malayalam, directed by Manu Ashokan, titled ‘Eyes’. She plays one of the many female characters. “What advice can I give anyone? Nothing. But my advice to producers is this: open up your resources to struggling filmmakers,” says Kani. – Asmita Aggarwal is fashion & lifestyle editor of nrifocus.com


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